Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
Last week we began our new sermon series on the Beatitudes called “Blessed: Finding the Good Life,” and we spent our time together looking at what it means to be poor in spirit. Today we look at a topic that most of us would rather avoid if we could…the topic of mourning. But at the same time, we remember the Jesus’ promise of comfort to those who experience loss. Would you read with me…
Well, football season is officially here, which means only one thing: Pittsburgh Dad fans will soon be laughing until they cry! Any Pittsburgh Dad fans in the room? Now, I don’t know if you’d ever heard of Pittsburgh Dad, but let me tell you- his online videos will have you rolling on the floor with laughter. Pittsburgh Dad loves, no, bleeds all things Pittsburgh (Primanti sandwiches, Stiller football, the word “yinz.). He’s black and gold through and through, and he’s not afraid to poke some fun at our Pittsburgh cultural and quirkiness! Well, earlier this summer “Pittsburgh Dad” decided to take his family out for a nice dinner to Pizza Hut. Everyone got in the car and they drove to their favorite Pizza Hut location…only to find that it had been converted into an office building. And Pittsburgh Dad couldn’t believe it! His favorite pizza joint had been shut down! But he was not to be deterred. So he went to the next town, only to find the same situation: no more Pizza Hut. All night long, they drove around, looking for a Pizza Hut, but all they could find were offices, apartment complexes, abandoned buildings and parking lots where the old Pizza Hut’s once stood. Pittsburgh Dad was beside himself! His old childhood places were no longer there.
If there’s one thing we know is true of our world, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t keep things the way they are. But we certainly try, don’t we? And sometimes we try with all our might! We try to reenact holiday traditions from our childhood, because they meant so much to us back then…but somehow, no matter what we do, they’re just not the same. We travel back to our old stomping grounds expecting to see those old familiar places and people… only to find out they’re no longer there. We grow up, move out, get married, move on…and all along we can’t shake the feeling like we’re losing something we cherish deep within.
My old seminary professor was fond of saying, “we just keep losing things.” It’s just part of what it means to be human. We lose our health, our jobs, our memories, our traditions, our marriages, our dreams, our loved ones. And try as we might, we can’t stop those things from happening. Sometimes our losses are due to the choices we’ve made; sometimes they’re simply the result of circumstances that just happen. But regardless of why our losses happen, they hurt and they hurt all the way to the heart. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus feels the need to speak up and comfort a hurting world wounded by the reality of loss.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus, “for they will be comforted.” Those are definitely soothing words for us to hear, yet I’ve always found this beatitude to be a bit strange for disciples. Mourning doesn’t quite point to the victorious life you’d expect from Jesus, sort of like last week’s word to the poor in spirit. We would expect Jesus to lead us out of suffering instead of through it. But for some reason, that’s just not the way Jesus goes about his business of blessing.
That’s probably why the early disciples were so confused at first. They jumped at the promise of a new life and a new opportunity, (who wouldn’t?) but then Jesus started mentioning things like crosses and sorrow, and it didn’t add up. Every time Jesus spoke of a cross, they scratched their heads. Every time he mentioned suffering and death, they tried to convince him that another plan would be far more successful. Every time he said something like, “Your sorrow will turn to joy,” I imagine they silently wondered, “Why can’t you just give us the joy and leave out the sorrow?”
If we had a dime for every time that question was asked, we’d be rich. Those questions are as old as the world, and still as fresh as they ever were… because sorrow just doesn’t make sense. We weren’t created to suffer; it wasn’t in God’s original design for us to lose what we value. But it’s become a part of our human story, and when we experience those moments of losing, it cuts to the heart. It hurts when someone walks away, or when the project we’ve worked so hard for comes crashing down. The pain is raw and frustrating when we’re told we’re no longer necessary, or the job comes to an end, or the doctor says, “There’s nothing more we can do.” And more often than not we’re left feeling vulnerable, empty and all out of sorts with emotions we didn’t even know existed.
I believe that’s one of the reasons we fear seasons of suffering. Not only are our hearts torn apart, but our reactions can be downright scary. Some of us tend to shut down and pull ourselves away from the world; others of us go around looking for someone, anyone to blame. We might turn to a substance to fill the gap, or to sex for a false sense of security. We might go back to a bad relationship, or make a rash decision without fully considering the consequences. Or we might just give up and stop believing. Why can’t we have the joy without the sorrow? There’s just too much we don’t like that bubbles to the surface of our souls when we hurt. Yet Jesus persists: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
When Jesus speaks these words, there’s no sense that this is optional. And we know it’s true. In this world you WILL have troubles, Jesus says in John. There’s simply no other way around the troubles of this world. We can’t avoid suffering; we can’t pretend it won’t happen. We WILL go through those times. Moses went through them. Job did, too. So did Peter and Mary. But in his good and gracious way, Jesus reminds us that comfort, and not mourning, has the final say.
Richard Foster says we are never more the Church than when we identify with those who suffer. And I’ve been privileged over the past few weeks to sit with a few families in their times of suffering. Make no mistake about it-- those times aren’t easy. They’re filled with tears and gut punches and tough questions, but they’re also times when God’s Kingdom breaks through in beautiful ways. I’ve watched our Parish churches shut down normal operations to prepare a meal for grieving friends; that’s a sign of Kingdom comfort. I’ve watched volunteers fix up a home for a stranger struggling with dementia, her grandchildren trying everything in their power to love her well through this disease; that’s a sign of Kingdom comfort. And I watched valiant voices speak up at an annual Overdose Awareness Vigil, a powerful way of telling those who have lost loved ones to addiction that “You are NOT alone.” That, too, is a sign of Kingdom comfort. And that’s what Jesus wants us to know.
Jesus wants us to know that when seasons of suffering spring upon us, we are closer than ever to God’s Kingdom activity. And that’s our comfort. It’s not that all of our questions will be answered…because they probably won’t. It’s not that everything will return to the way it was; it probably won’t. And it’s not that we’ll get back what we’ve lost; those chances are unlikely. But those things don’t amount to comfort. Our comfort is Christ, who doesn’t ignore or avoid suffering, but chooses instead to enter into it and bring about redemption. It is Jesus who faces death, trusting that the Father has a greater plan, and defeats what tried to subdue him. It is Jesus who travels the darkest valley, while his greatest friends deserted him, and still brings about a path of righteousness. It is Jesus who comes to the garden, that place full of despair and offers surprising hope by speaking Mary’s name.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,” says the Psalmist. And in the end, I’m not sure there’s a greater blessing than the presence of Jesus in our darkest hour. I won’t lie to you. I don’t understand death and suffering, and if I had my way, I would rid the world of its pain. I guess that’s why I hold on to the promise of Revelation, that one day God will make everything new. But until then, we trust that God is present, no matter the circumstances, and that seasons of suffering are fertile ground for some of God’s best redemptive activity. This is the narrative of our faith.
Our faith is not shaped by a struggle-free life; our faith is shaped by a God who hears our cries, sees our tears, understands our pain and responds by sending only God’s very best- God’s very self. And in times of mourning, nothing else will do. Only God can speak to the soul; only God can save the crushed in spirit; only God can defeat those troubling enemies that threaten to rob us of everything that makes us us. When everything in our world falls apart, when we fall apart, we’re left with God. And that’s enough. That’s our comfort. He is our comfort. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Not with a kind word, a nice gesture, or a large settlement, but with the presence of an unfailing, never changing, eternally loving God. When times of mourning approach, don’t try to avoid them. Embrace them. Travel with others through them. Go to those who suffer and be with them. And pay attention, because God’s presence and Kingdom are not far off. Amen.